TALKING FILMS

Pa Ranjith’s ‘Kaala’ turns the Ramayana on its head – by making Raavana the hero

The counter-narrative in the Rajinikanth-starrer locates the epic in contemporary Indian realities.

The festival of Onam in Kerala is a celebration of the death of king Mahabali at the hands of Vishnu. This fictional story is observed as a historical event, like most other Puranic stories. Thus, attempts to rewrite these stories become, in a way, a rewriting of history. In 1907, Tamil Nadu’s pioneering Dalit thinker Iyothee Thass reimagined the story of Mahabali. In his counter-narrative, Mahabali was a Buddhist king who ruled Mahabalipuram according to Buddhist ethics. He died in the Tamil month of Puratasi on a new moon (Amavasya) day. This day was observed as Mahabali Amavasya for a long time. Vaishnavites who saw the power of this story appropriated Mahabali and came up with the version that he was banished by Vishnu.

To a keen observer, it is clear that history is a battle between different narratives. Pa Ranjith’s Kaala, which gives us the story of Dalits and other oppressed sections of society, falls under the category of such counter narratives. Rather than merging the contemporary with the epic, Kaala is a narrative that locates the epic in the contemporary.

Dharavi in Mumbai, Asia’s second largest slum, is the stage for Kaala. Nationalist politician Haridev (Nana Patekar) tries to snatch away this place from its residents, who are substantially Tamils.

The film is the resistance that Karikaalan (Rajinikanth), who hails from Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu, poses to these attempts. Kaala fits the frame of the hero-villain narrative prevalent in Tamil cinema, but differs in meanings it projects.

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Kaala (2018).

Haridev tries to invade Dharavi in the garb of cleaning up Mumbai. Kaala stops him in his tracks. The narrative positions this tale in the Rama versus Raavana story in the Ramayana. The technocrat clad in white looks at the black-wearing Kaala and the Dharavi he reflects as dirt and something to be dispensed. Here, white, and the “purity” it represents, is not just a colour, but an ideology, and merges with the Puranic Rama. In the contemporary, it could be the black Raavana to the Rama of purity that the modern nationalism of the Bharatiya Janata Party represents. Like Rama killed Raavana, this modern nationalism tries to destroy the dirt that is black with the purity of white.

The film’s narrative merges these threads to explain the result of such projects as Swachh Bharat, which reflect the repercussions that the slums of our big cities face in the backdrop of corporatisation. The screenplay moves with the symbolism of white versus black in this specific meaning. Kaala says that he is black and protects by fighting. Haridev, who finds the very mention of Kaala cringeworthy, claims slums are a symbol of dirt. If the dirt is to be removed, the one who fights to protect the dirt should also be done away with.

It is Haridev’s wish that everyone should fall at his feet. His slogan is “Jai Maharastra!”But Kaala portrays black not as dirt but as colour. He tells people not to fall at his feet. My name is a Tamil name, Kaala says.

By putting this duel in the mould of the Ramayana, the narrative tells us that this fight is an extension of history. This is what we call a “counter narrative”. Instead of projecting the issue as just a contemporary one, the story merges the issue with an epic deeply entrenched in the psyche of the public. Such a counter narrative comes alive on a medium such as cinema that has the potential to affect public memory.

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Madras (2014).

Pa Ranjith has taken up within the mould of commercial cinema the often ignored lives of the marginalised in urban areas, in each of his four films, Kaala, Kabali, Attakathi and Madras. He does this in a very systematic manner in the storylines and through customs, colours and dialogue. The slum comes to life with aspects such as the gaana performance tradition, beef, football and kabaddi. It brings to the fore the celebrations in the marginalised life. Dialogues like “our city is Madras and we are its address”, three-piece suits of the protagonist who sits cross-legged, converting a name like Kabali, often used as ridicule, into a hero’s name, bring out a different meaning to these elements.

In Kaala, the focus is on the land rights of the marginalised in Mumbai, but the issue is not confined to Mumbai alone and finds resonance across big cities. For long, land rights have been associated with farm land in the villages. Those living in cities do not locate land as a right, which is why they are dislocated from their land with little protest.

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In the Puranic Ramayana, Raavana dies and Rama lives. When this story is merged in Kaala, it is Rama and not Raavana who is defeated. Even though Kaala seems to fulfill popular cinema’s norm that the protagonist succeeds in the end, it is important to stress here that this movie is not adhering to this rule. In the backdrop of a sermon on the Ramayana taking place in Haridev’s house, his men enter Dharavi and burn down houses and attack the people. They return, thinking that they have killed Kaala.

Until this point, the screenplay moves in the usual cinematic way. Raavana should die and he should not return – that is the rule of the epic. But in Tamil culture, the idea of looking at Raavana as a hero exists. This started with the 19th century Saivite movement and was later taken up by the Dravidian movement in the 20th century. Pulavar Kuzhanthai, a Dravidian writer, turned Raavana into a hero and wrote Raavana Kaviyam in 1946. In the movie, there is a copy of this book on Karikaalan’s study table. A song in the movie refers to Kaala as the one-headed Raavana. It is as a continuation of this history that the character of Raavana reaches this film and hence, his fate, becomes an important factor.

Does Kaala accept the Dravidian narrative of Raavana in totality or does it differ? It is in the answer to this question lies the uniqueness of this story.

Even though Pulavar Kuzhanthai portrays Raavana as an honest character, he is indeed vanquished by Rama in the end. The drama that the Dravidian poet Bharatidasan penned in 1934 by reimagining the story of Hiranyan (Hiranyakasipu) also killed the character in the end. Instead of believing in the potential of the creation, these creators believed more in history.

But in Ranjith’s story, Raavana wins by absorbing the true potential of imagination. A completely contradictory narrative to the Ramayana is made possible in Kaala. Not only does Kaala move away from climax of the Ramayana, but it also fills the gap left by the Dravidian narrative and moves ahead, in the same way Iyothee Thass did with Mahabali.

Assuming that Raavana (Kaala) has lost and he has won, Rama (Haridev) enters Dharavi and picks up the soil in his hands. Here, the movie enters the world of fantasy. A girl in the crowd throws black powder on Haridev. The crowd then surrounds him and throws the colours of blue and red at him. When Haridev looks up, he sees Kaala walking past as one among the crowd. Here, heroism is substituted with fantasy. It would have been easy to turn the epic upside down and show Kaala defeating Rama. But the movie does not end here. A sort of magic transpires. It symbolically shows that Kaala will never be defeated and will emerge again and again. Therefore, the face in the crowd is not Kaala but one among many Kaalas.

(Translated from Tamil by Sruthisagar Yamunan.)

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.